What does it mean to be black in Britain today?
This study has been specifically written to coincide with Black History Month and relates Alberta’s personal experiences of being a black person in the UK and her hopes for the future.
I was born in the early 60’s in England to West Indian parents who had emigrated to this country 10 years previously. My parents and others encountered a harshness during this period of history, with slogans like ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. Racism was overtly expressed in areas of life including employment, housing and education. My parents hardly ever spoke about it, as it caused them a great deal of emotional pain and trauma.
They had been invited to this country by a representative from a former colony, to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War. At that time, overt acts of racism had led to a raft of race relations legislation, prompted also by, for example, the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. ‘Stop and search’ laws instituted by the government were aimed at people who the police deemed to be suspicious; in those decades, often in reality a way of legally harassing black people. Britain was certainly not the place that they were taught it was in the West Indies; particularly painful, because there they were seen as equal citizens. In England, through prejudice, they were perceived and treated as people who were less than, and a threat.
I have had some good experiences and access to some things, having been born in the UK. The NHS is an example (ironically, built by people like my parents from the Windrush Generation). But the advantages of this green and pleasant land pale into insignificance when someone makes it clear they don’t want to be seated on the table next to me in a restaurant or bus; or receiving an unwelcome look from someone I have never met, because of the colour of my skin.
My first experience with racism began in primary school. In a class of black and white pupils, I was one of two black children chosen for a special treat by the Headmistress: in her office, she produced a cleaning cloth and asked us to dust. The reward was a handful each of jelly sweets as payment. We polished the furniture and were told what an excellent job we had done and handed the sweets. On returning home I told my mother about the incident; the following day she spoke to the Headmistress. Needless to say this never happened again.
These days, day-to-day overt microaggressions have been described as experiencing death by a thousand cuts. I remember shopping with my mother on a weekend and being called nasty names referring to my skin colour. People told me to go back to my own country. I’ve been spat at in the past. I am regularly followed by security when entering shops. At school I was told by the Careers adviser that I should look for a manual position, even though she was patently aware of my academic ability. In the working world I am usually the experienced one who teaches a new white colleague the job, but not promoted myself; repeatedly I see the person I have taught promoted above me.
Some of these instances can be seen as coincidences or can happen to anyone. But these experiences have happened too many times to me, and to so many black people, that it cannot be put down to mere chance.
What can you do? In life we always have things to learn and to change. I’m a great fan of using education for change. I think that when we want to increase understanding, empathy and change we can educate ourselves about things of which we may previously have been blissfully unaware. There is a plethora of easily accessable material to help us journey to become anti-racist.
Read material, listen to podcasts, watch videos, hear opposing views and listen to the stories of those who have experienced prejudice and racism. Try to follow the old adage of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’. Information is available at a click of a button.
Will you take the time to inform yourself and challenge others in areas that gravely affect your brothers and sisters in Christ? Can your prayers be more poignant and informed about the injustices they face daily? The next step is really up to you, to follow Jesus in bringing liberation.
Study by Alberta Gibbs.
About the writer:
Alberta Gibbs attends the Birmingham congregation of Grace Communion International.
All Saints Church
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